Is a preoccupation with money like a religion? The Merriam-Webster online dictionary defines religion in three ways:
1. The belief in a god or in a group of gods.
2. An organized system of beliefs, ceremonies, and rules used to worship a god or a group of gods.
3. An interest, a belief, or an activity that is very important to a person or group.
The last of these competes for our attention with the organized and historic religions. Some people even state that those of us in the West worship the dollar. Lots of sayings display the long shadow that money throws over human existence:
- “Money makes the world go round.” (Others say it is love that makes the world go round).
- “When I was young I thought that money was the most important thing in life: now that I’m old I know that it is.” (Oscar Wilde)
- “The lack of money is the root of all evil.” (Mark Twain)
- “For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs.” (Timothy 6:10)
- “The only thing money gives you is the freedom of not worrying about money.” (Johnny Carson)
Of these, I think perhaps Johnny Carson (the long time host of the Tonight Show before Jay Leno) is the most intriguing. Carson enjoyed being a wealthy man, but recognized that it didn’t guarantee a happy life. All the problems with relationships, alcohol, broken marriages, infidelity, an even an ever-present bit of anxiety before every comedy monologue he ever gave — all these were well-known to him. He appears to have enjoyed being a rich man, but equally seems not to have been a very happy one.
Carson’s comment only deals with the problem of having lots of money. No, his worry was not the same as the person who wonders if he has enough for a room and a good meal or how to put his daughter through college. In his short story, Under New Management, Joseph Epstein expresses a different perspective in the voice of his character Artie Abrams, Marty Abrams’ son. Marty was a father who became wealthy in middle-age or, as his son put it:
I had to wait until my twenties to acquire a father like everyone else’s: a man distracted, concentrated on moneymaking, with less and less sense of the everyday adventurousness of life.
Artie blamed his father’s second wife for this. Artie’s mom had died of cancer some years before the new Mrs. Abrams transformed her husband into a money machine. And what did Marty himself think of the “magnificence” of his own wealth? He told his son exactly what he thought:
Some magnificence. It’s just about money, and money isn’t always magnificent. Sometimes it isn’t even a lot of fun. You always have to be watching over the goddamn stuff, making sure it’s producing on its own, that someone isn’t making a tenth of a percentage point more than you, which leaves you feeling like a schmuck. This is not a problem I expected to have.
Most people would call it a happy problem, Dad.
But for Marty and Artie there was a bigger problem. Marty had just been diagnosed with terminal cancer. As Johnny Carson said, “The only thing money gives you is the freedom of not worrying about money.”
Beyond the necessity of money in order to purchase life’s necessities, it is almost like a projective psychological test that all of us take without giving our permission. A dollar bill is the same in anyone’s hands: it looks the same, it feels the same, it smells the same, but from one person to another it doesn’t mean the same thing.
What do I mean by this? I’m talking about why it might be important to you beyond the essential things like purchasing food. Think of some of the possible meanings money has for people:
- a sense of financial security
- public status
- making a living
- helping out your kids
- a way to improve the lives of others by giving it away
- a way to make yourself feel good by giving it away
- the necessary ingredient to obtain the permanent sexual partner of your dreams, who might otherwise not give you the time of day
- a way of measuring how you are doing in life in comparison to your business competitors or friends
- a method of exerting influence over the political direction of the country (think of the Koch Brothers or George Soros)
- a way of boosting your private level of self-esteem
- the ability to see a ballgame or concert of your choice from a good seat
- what you are willing to do in order to get more of it (get a good education, work hard, cheat, put in long hours away from your family, etc.)
For those who hope to alter their self-esteem by making lots of money, I’ve got some news for you: there are limits here, too. In my therapy practice, I saw a great many people who had made lots of money. Many of them suffered from low self-esteem, nonetheless. Some felt that they were frauds. The looked good on the outside — fancy clothes, nice home — but the money hadn’t changed what they felt on the inside.
Too many had believed that lots of money would solve all their problems and discovered what Johnny Carson knew, even if they’d never read the quote I mentioned. For most of us, the purchase of a new, fancy, expensive car feels good for only a while. As the “new car smell” fades, so does the emotional boost it gives us.
Daniel Kahneman, the Nobel Prize winning psychologist, has some important things to say about money. First he defines two kinds of happiness. There is the happiness that comes from thinking about (evaluating) your life. This is called “life satisfaction.” Then there is the happiness or well-being that you experience from moment-to-moment. He cites a Gallup world poll to draw some lessons about money:
- “The conclusion (of the Gallup research) is that being poor makes one miserable and that being rich may enhance one’s life satisfaction, but does not (on average) improve experienced well-being (the second definition above).”
- “The satiation level beyond which experienced well-being no longer increases was a household income of about $75,000 in high-cost areas (it could be less in areas where the cost of living was lower). The average increase of experienced well-being associated with incomes beyond that level was precisely zero.”
- “It is only a slight exaggeration to say that happiness is the experience of spending time with people you love and who love you.”*
Put all this together and one comes to realize that the American Dream to which so many aspire, is something quite imperfect. If you are looking for happiness in making tons of money, you may be searching in the wrong place. The legend of King Midas, whose every touch made objects into gold, was a cautionary tale.
It is a fine and necessary thing to have money. It is not so fine for the money to have you.
The money bag pictured above is the work of Barbara Lock and sourced from Wikimedia Commons. Joseph Epstein’s short story, Under New Management, can be found in The Love Song of A. Jerome Minkoff and Other Stories published in 2010.
*The quotations from Daniel Kahneman come from his 2011 book, Thinking, Fast and Slow.